When England take to the pitch at Wembley on Friday they will go up against one of the most dynamic teams in international football. Chile are high on confidence after sealing qualification for a second consecutive World Cup and although the coach has changed, they still employ the same high-octane, attacking style of play that made Marcelo Bielsa’s team such fan favourites in South Africa three years ago.
Spain certainly struggled to deal with Chile’s energetic high press in the friendly between the countries in mid-September. A late equaliser from Jesus Navas spared their blushes in a 2-2 draw in which Chile’s proactive defending and excellent final third movement put the reigning world champions squarely on the back foot. Spain are not the only country to have toiled against La Roja: Chile have won eight and lost just one of their 12 internationals this year.
This recent good run of form is in stark contrast to the situation at the back end of last year. Then, Chile had lost three consecutive World Cup qualifiers and were in danger of failing to reach Brazil 2014. A friendly defeat to Serbia spelled the end of Claudio Borghi’s time as national team coach. It was his replacement, Jorge Sampaoli, who facilitated the turnaround in fortunes that saw Chile win five of their remaining seven qualifiers to finish third in the group and seal a World Cup place.
He has never worked under him, but Sampaoli's philosophy is predicated on Bielsa's and has proved a perfect fit for a national team squad consisting largely of players who were coached by Bielsa or benefited from his methodology cascading down to Chile's youth national teams. The rest came to prominence in the Universidad de Chile side Sampaoli led to three consecutive Chilean league titles and the 2011 Copa Sudamericana, playing the same swashbuckling style now practiced by the national team.
Whether in a 3-4-3, 3-4-1-2 or 4-3-3, Chile play the same way, pressing high up the pitch, forcing mistakes and attacking quickly and directly upon gaining possession. Sampaoli has a fixed idea of how he wants his team to play; home or away, he approaches the game in the same way. His unwavering conviction will make Chile one of the most attractive teams to watch in Brazil next year.
With the indefatigable Mauricio Isla bombing forward down the right, Eugenio Mena fulfilling a similar duty on the left and Arturo Vidal, a powerhouse midfielder who “does the running of four players”, according to Juventus team-mate Claudio Marchisio, driving forward from the centre of the pitch, Chile attack with a great deal of energy and ambition. Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas form a vibrant forward line, while the brilliantly inventive Jorge Valdivia, purveyor of exquisitely weighted through balls, adds clarity from a false nine or attacking midfield position.
If there is a weakness, then it is in defence. Chile lack height at the back and their defenders are much more comfortable defending high up the pitch than on the edge of their own penalty area. They struggle when penned back, as shown during Borghi’s reign and, more recently, in the second half of their 3-3 qualifying draw away to Colombia. Three up at half time, Chile loosened their press, dropped deeper and crumbled, conceding three times.
Sampaoli has already named 18 players whom he considers certainties for next year’s World Cup squad, if fit, and there is fierce competition for the remaining places. Colo Colo full-back Jose Pedro Fuenzalida, Twente midfielder Felipe Gutierrez and Baniyas forward Carlos Munoz are among those hoping to stake a claim if given an opportunity, either against England or next Tuesday, when Chile face Brazil in Toronto, Canada.
Chile emerged as 2-0 victors on their last visit to Wembley back in February 1998, with Marcelo Salas scoring twice, including a superbly taken volley. It is a match that is fondly remembered in Chile, not least because the France ‘98 team of Salas, Ivan Zamorano, Clarence Acuna and Jose Luis Sierra was, for more than a decade, the last Chilean team to qualify for a World Cup. Chile are, in fact, undefeated at Wembley, having also drawn 0-0 in a 1989 friendly.
Friday’s match promises to be intriguing battle. On the one hand, it will be interesting to see how England cope against a team that presses them aggressively, particularly considering the success Southampton – whose coach Mauricio Pochettino is also influenced by Bielsa – have enjoyed this season while employing similar tactics. For Chile, the physicality of England and the aerial threat they will pose from set-pieces should provide an ample test for their defence. Regardless of the result, it is sure to be entertaining encounter.
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